The words "Live your days not your dreams" take on an additional poignancy in Jidariyya ("the mural"), a meditation on life, language and death by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who died from complications after heart surgery earlier this month. Darwish wrote his 100-page poem when he almost died from a heart attack in 1999.
In Khalifa Natour's adaptation of the epic work, brought by the Palestinian National Theatre to the International Festival's season of Artists Without Borders, Darwish truly opens his heart. It's good to know that this voice of the Palestinian cause saw and approved of the production.
However, his words, spoken in Arabic with a rough, back-projected English translation, surely lose much in translation. His doubtless elegant, luminous language – drawing on sources from the Old and New Testaments to folklore – falls here between the humdrum and the surreal. Fortunately, the arresting production, directed and designed by Amir Nizar Zuabi, itself speaks volumes. On stage, we see a man – the central poet character – lying on a bed, his son doubling as the dying man's younger self. As his hold on life fluctuates, the ill man (a wonderfully detailed portrayal by Makram J Khoury) recalls and imagines episodes from his life, each accompanied by striking scenes. A procession of refugees clutching suitcases makes its way across the stage, presumably trying to cross a border. The goddess Anat covers the land in corn; peasants spin to otherworldly music; and death stalks in the guise of medical staff posing in sinister sheep-masks.
From his prison in the clinical reality of the hospital ward, the dying man succumbs to the dreamlike visions. The cast of eight, including one instrumentalist, slip between real and imagined characters, with only the man's younger self – ambitious, hopeful – picked out as a specific role. The lines of poetry are shared among the cast, and the staging is beautifully lit by Philippe Andrieux.
Zuabi's production focuses on life and love, even as death nears. It's the poet's fear of losing his powers of language rather than his struggle with mortality that causes most despair. The text deals courageously and inventively with the tenuous hold on life of a man on the verge of extinction. "Oh Death, wait while I pack my bag," he exclaims, in a rare moment of humour.
This is a spiritual and metaphysical journey that seems almost the antithesis of thrilling theatre, yet it exerts a curiously strong hold. An eloquent hymn to the beauty of life, pointing up its transience, Jidariyya stays in the memory long after death has claimed the dreamer of dreams.Reuse content